Taiwan’s innate beauty, welcoming people, and vibrant culture are one-of-a-kind.
Though the island may be small—it’s about one-third of the state of New York in size—its regional diversity is dramatic, offering vastly different travel experiences from one place to another.
Though one trip is far from enough to cover it all, travelers can explore an impressive range of destinations in the Greater Taipei Area, which includes Taipei City, the island’s bustling, metropolitan capital, and New Taipei City. Plentiful public transportation, including buses, trains, and a spotless metro system, make traveling within the area quick and easy.
From bubbling hot springs to historic towns packed with iconic eats, here are five destinations in northern Taiwan worth putting on your list.
Ruifang: History Paved in Gold
In Ruifang, visitors can experience the essence of what makes Taiwan unique—food, history, and scenery—all in one place. Located in New Taipei City, the area has a train station that conveniently connects it to the rest of the island.
Gold mines were discovered in Ruifang in the 1890s, leading to a gold rush that didn’t officially end until 1971. Much of the region’s mining history has been well preserved, including mining caves, tunnels, and excavation tools. Several local towns in Ruifang, including Jiufen and Jinguashi, now act as living records of the past.
One area in Ruifang that epitomizes the locale’s rich history is Jinguashi Geological Park. The park is surrounded by mountains on three sides, while the fourth faces the Pacific Ocean. “Jinguashi” literally means “golden pumpkin rock,” because one of the mountains takes on the shape of a pumpkin.
The history of the gold rush comes alive at Jinguashi’s Gold Museum, where visitors can take part in a hands-on experience of sifting gold from mud, as well as marvel at beautiful gold artwork on display.
There’s history in the area’s natural surrounds, too: Decades of contact with underground mineral deposits have turned the region’s water acidic and tinged orange.
This mineral-rich water is responsible for two extraordinary spectacles: the Golden Waterfall, so named for the golden-yellow hue of both its water and the exposed bedrocks, and the Yin Yang Sea, whose waters are curiously colored in contrasting yellow and blue. The sea is named after the ancient Chinese principle of yin and yang, which states that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites, such as male and female, and light and dark.
Local Eats in Jiufen
One of the towns in Ruifang that became prosperous because of gold mining was Jiufen. The town earned the nicknames of “little Shanghai” and “little Hong Kong,” after the two wealthy cities.
While Jiufen no longer shines with as much wealth and glamour, it continues to draw crowds of visitors—especially to the famed “Jiufen Old Street”—with its stunning scenery and reputation as a one-stop destination for some of the best local snacks.
Taiwan is world-famous for its long list of culinary delights, and Jiufen is home to some of the most beloved. One of its most iconic treats is a bowl of chewy-sweet taro balls, made with mashed taro and sweet potato flour and served either over shaved ice or in a warm, syrupy soup.
Other famous snacks include peanut ice cream rolls, consisting of sweetened peanut powder, sugar, parsley, and two scoops of ice cream inside a spring roll wrapper; and “dragon phoenix legs,” a fried dish consisting of minced chicken and cabbage, speared on a skewer.
Travel Tip: Taiwan Tour Bus offers comfortable, guided bus tours to destinations across Taiwan, including a route to the Northeast coast, Jinguashi, and Jiufen.
Pingxi: Wish Upon a Sky Lantern
A 50-minute train ride from Ruifang will take visitors to Pingxi, another district in New Taipei City. Each year, during the Sky Lantern Festival, glowing, floating lanterns light the skies above Pingxi, as people take part in a long-held tradition of writing their wishes on giant paper lanterns and releasing them for good fortune. These paper lanterns can be bought from local vendors for about $3.
These lanterns have a long history going back to the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280 A.D.) in ancient China, when they were used to pass on military intelligence during times of war. They’re believed to be the smaller-scale ancestors of modern-day hot air balloons that are big enough to carry people.
Visitors who wish to take part in the festival need to plan ahead: The celebration falls on different days every year, though usually around the same time as the island’s national holiday of the Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar. In addition to Pingxi’s Sky Lantern Festival, the larger Taiwan Lantern Festival will be held in the central Taiwan city of Taichung, beginning Feb. 8, 2020.
Aside from the festival, Pingxi also boasts a number of different attractions, including the Shifen Waterfall and Pingxi Old Street.
The Shifen Waterfall, with a height of 65 feet and a width of 131 feet, is widely considered the most beautiful waterfall in Taiwan. It has earned the nickname of “Little Niagara” for its horseshoe shape, resembling the world-famous waterfall in North America.
Like Jiufen Old Street, Pingxi Old Street is also home to many local shops selling unique Taiwanese snacks. What makes it one-of-a-kind, however, is that a railroad track runs through the street—a popular site for buying and releasing paper lanterns.
Travel Tip: See Taiwan Tour Bus’ one-day tour to Pingxi.
Pinglin: The Land of Tea
Situated at the south of Pingxi, bordering northeastern Taiwan’s Yilan County, is the district of Pinglin.
Pinglin is home to many verdant, terraced tea plantations that grow one of the island’s most famous indigenous teas: baozhong tea, a lightly oxidized oolong with a strong fragrance.
Visitors can enjoy this local specialty in several ways. Tea plantation owners may open their doors to the public, some operating as restaurants that serve both food and tea, and others simply as tea houses.
To fully understand the culture and history behind the tea, as well as learn how the plant is cultivated, head to the Pinglin Tea Museum. Established in 1997, the museum is also home to a tea house, a classroom that regularly holds lectures on tea culture, and a Chinese-style garden.
Also hidden away in Pinglin is a serene beauty unmatched in the area: the Thousand Island Lake, an emerald lake dotted with mountain ridges that protrude from beneath the water like countless islands.
Beitou: A Hot Springs Getaway
Nicknamed the “hot springs village,” Beitou is a mountainous district located in the northern part of Taipei City. While there are several hot springs throughout Taiwan, Beitou boasts easy access by public transport, particularly via the Taipei City metro.
For visitors who prefer the comfort of privacy, there are many hotels and resorts in the area with bathtubs that pipe in hot spring water.
There are also plenty of public, open-air options available, where visitors can enjoy the spring water while taking in the warm sun, a gentle breeze, or even a starry sky.
Beitou Park offers four hot spring pools and two that are cold, open to the public for an adult admission price of 40 New Taiwan dollars (about $1.28). These public pools are open for six different intervals, starting at 5:30 a.m. Visitors are required to wear swimsuits.
Nearby is Beitou Thermal Valley, one of the sources supplying the area’s hot springs, and another major tourist attraction. Thermal Valley is a “green sulfur” hot spring, one of the three types of springs found in the area.
The spring reaches temperatures of 194–212 degrees F, and generates sulfuric steam that permeates the air all year. During days that are dark and cloudy, the misty air gives the valley an eerie feeling, resulting in its nickname of “Ghost Lake.” On sunny days, though, when the mist somewhat clears to reveal the beautiful blue-green waters, the valley feels more like paradise.
Another attraction inside Beitou Park is the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, originally a bathhouse built in 1913, which tells of Beitou’s rich history. One section of the two-story museum, for instance, is devoted to showcasing how Beitou was a favorite filming destination in the 1960s and 1970s, earning the district the nickname of the “Hollywood of the Taiwanese film industry.”
Beitou Park is also home to one of the most visually stunning buildings in the area. The Beitou Public Library, built in 2006, is made entirely of wood and resembles the shape of a boat. The building is known for its eco-friendly design, which includes the use of solar power and captured rainwater.
Visitors to Beitou can also try a unique local snack: hot spring eggs, which are boiled in hot spring water and commonly sold by street vendors in the area.
Yangmingshan: A Nature Retreat
Though Taiwan may be small, the island boasts a total of nine national parks. Among them is Yangmingshan National Park.
Yangmingshan is home to a diverse population of plants and animals, due to the fact that it consists of both subtropical and warm temperate climate zones. One of the most beautiful endemic Taiwanese birds, the Taiwan blue magpie, can sometimes be spotted here.
Every year, rhododendrons and cherry blossoms in full bloom herald the coming of spring. From March to the end of April, the blooming season for calla lilies, the park’s Bamboo Lake becomes a sight to behold—it’s surrounded by the delicate white flowers.
The best place to get amazing views of Yangmingshan is Qingtiangang, a mountain-top grassland with gentle meadows, undulating grass, and stumpy shrubs. Due to its high elevation—2,526 feet above sea level—the area is often shrouded in clouds, giving it a mystical aura.
The park is full of hiking trails for people of all fitness levels, with different trails exploring different ecosystems. Shuttle buses with frequent stops make these trails all easily accessible.
One of the more challenging options is the Jinbaoli Trail, which stretches about four miles from Qingtiangang Gate down to Yichong Bridge with an elevation drop of more than 1,600 feet. Along the way, hikers can expect to see Taiwanese blue magpies, Formosan wild boars, and silver grass, among other flora and fauna.
Cycling is another great way to enjoy Yangmingshan, thanks to a well-laid-out system of bike trails. One trail takes cyclists from Shilin, another district in Taipei City, to Qingtiangang.
As with Beitou, there are several hot springs in Yangmingshan. Among the most unique are the ones at Lengshuikeng, which means “cold water pit” in Chinese—the water temperature only reaches about 104 degrees F, compared to temperatures of 140 degrees and above at other hot springs.
Travel Tip: Taiwan Tour Bus also offers a half-day tour of Yangmingshan National Park and Beitou Hot Spring.